Chapter 12 : Yet the Puerto Ricans Multiply
Bread upon the Waters
DAY AFTER DAY I continued touring the island, usually with Teresa Anglero and a committee of girls from the shops, visiting all the cities and almost every village and hamlet in the hills where the home workers lived. I talked with all kinds of people, addressed organizational mass meetings÷and because it was so obviously necessary, conducted workers' education and social service classes, in which the subjects included child care, birth control, personal hygiene, and nutrition.*
The great need of personal hygiene among the island's women had made itself evident soon after my arrival. Staying overnight at Mayaguez we got two adjoining rooms in La Palma Hotel, a dilapidated structure, the only place where we could find accommodations. Our three girl companions occupied one room, and Teresa and I the other.
No bathtub or shower; a common toilet outside. Mosquitoes entered through holes in the net canopies over our beds; we chased them out and tried to stop up the holes. Odors of spice and grease from cooking done in a charcoal fireplace in the outdoor court assailed our nostrils all night.
I carried my own towel and soap and a sanitary kit containing bottles of medicated alcohol, witch hazel, iodine, and kindred things. Next morning my traveling companions watched me in wonderment as I wet a wash-cloth with alcohol and gave myself a sponge bath. I explained that I did this always when no bath water could be had, and shared the alcohol with them. They found its cooling effect to their liking, and used it with enthusiasm. On succeeding trips I brought a larger supply, plus olive oil for the hair and citronella oil to keep mosquitoes away. While speaking in Lares, a small town, I noticed a woman with hollow eyes listening intently. Something about her caught my special attention. After a while, I saw her slump in a faint.
I halted the proceedings. One of the men carried her to another room, and I followed with my first aid kit. Loosening her clothing, I discovered that she wore a man's full-length union suit, winter weight, and was pregnant. I revived her, then asked a few questions. She was weak from undernourishment. I gave her warm milk and crackers from my lunch box.
Several days later another woman fainted from hunger as I spoke in a crowded high school in Aguada. This time I was better prepared. I had brought a bigger thermos bottle filled with hot milk-and-water, plenty of crackers, and bars of chocolate.
Others fainted at subsequent meetings, and I took to carrying a liberal supply of emergency foods on all my trips. Always now, before the speeches started, I inquired whether any of those present had come without eating. If so, we supplied light food to them.
Sleek, fat cattle grazing in green pastures, but no milk for mothers or babies in tens of thousands of huts and shacks. Warehouses in port towns groaning with food and other necessaries, to be exported at a handsome profit by the few who controlled production. Hunger and disease everywhere in this paradise÷and bureaucracy and callous indifference. The poor and famished reduced to statistics by officeholders who dined sumptuously at their clubs.
To my delight I found that Puerto Ricans were not only born orators, but good listeners as well. Sometimes when we arrived at a meeting already in progress, one of them would be reciting a long poem, perhaps his own, on the beauties of the island, and the people's love for it. Audiences would listen for hours to such recitals. I thought of it as anodyne to them, their troubles lost in the melody of the spoken words. Local musicians, too, contributed diversion. Their rhythms to me seemed primitive and weird. One rainy night we finished a meeting at 10, and drove on to another town, where I was scheduled to speak. Delayed, we did not arrive until 11. I expected to find the audience gone, but to my astonishment the big high school auditorium was packed with men, women, and children listening to a recitation by a local poet. So eager were they for information about the union that none left until the meeting ended, after midnight.
In some needle trades centers, we found that the manufacturers were reclassifying their employes to evade the requirements of the NRA Code. Hundreds in the factories had been discharged, and the work given to contractors who would later take it into the hills for the home workers. Thus in countless instances the processes of pulling threads to cut squares for handkerchiefs, tru tru (hemstitching), and machine sewing had been transferred to home workers. The machines, of an archaic model never seen in the States, were either lent or rented at a high price.
Before the Code was established some of the faster workers were able to earn $5 or a little more a week during the busy season. By shunting the bulk of the work to the homes, the employers got by with a payment of only $2 a week to each individual under the Code. In due time I met and talked with most of the important officials, including Governor Blanton Winship, the Federal Relief Administrator, and various Senators. Upon each I urged the necessity of establishing kindergartens and clinics to teach women personal hygiene, having public nurses visit the homes÷and starting continuation schools for young people who had been compelled to go to work at an early age.
All these officials appeared to react favorably; but I had heard too often the phrase Manana por la manana (tomorrow morning) in that Caribbean isle. There were too many "tomorrow mornings."
Teresa Anglero and I visited the Commissioner of Education, Senor Aran, and put before him a detailed plan, which, as an initial step, called for establishment of workers' educational classes at the Labra School in San Juan, and at Rio Pedras, Loiza, Carolina, and Bayamon. Senor Aran approved of our plan, and $5,000 was set aside by his department for that purpose. The classes dealt English, Spanish, public speaking, history and methods of the labor movement, sociology, and health problems, with emphasis on the last.
Now I wrote to Hilda Worthington Smith, formerly dean at Bryn Mawr College, who was then living in Washington. She held an important post on the WPA Workers' Education Project as a specialist in that field. I asked her to use her influence on behalf of the Puerto Ricans, and she got busy at once. Later she advised me that the Federal Relief Administration had given a grant for a workers' training center on the island. The following year, thanks to Miss Smith's intercession, a summer school for workers was set up in San Juan, on the campus of the University of Puerto Rico.
Aguadilla (Waterville), a morose looking town, had long boasted that Columbus landed there in 1493 to refill the fresh water kegs on his ships. To commemorate that event, a statue of the Genoese explorer was erected on a tall pedestal in the plaza. But Aguada (Watertown), another community 15 miles farther southwest, contended that Columbus and his men actually came ashore for the water within its boundaries. Feeling was so high among the loyal citizens of Aguada that a delegation visited Aguadilla in the dead of night and carried off the statue. Only the pedestal remained. Mention of Columbus was sure to start a debate whenever residents of the two towns met.
But I remember Aguadilla for a more compelling reason. Visiting the home of the school principal, I asked his wife if I might wash my hands. She gave me a basin of rainwater in which mosquito larvae and the embryos of other insects were floating. To wash in such water was an open invitation to hook-worm infection. After that experience I depended more than ever on my alcohol supply.
In Yauco we visited a Labor Senator. He had six daughters and three sons. Honor had come to him for long activity in behalf of the workers, but he had not been able to overcome poverty. His wife and the six daughters owned only a single pair of shoes÷all seven using them in turn ! St. Mary's Hospital stands on a hill on the outskirts of Mayaguez. Occasionally it offers sleeping accommodations to guests; cots in private rooms. Once, when we could not get into a hotel, we stopped there.
In the morning we had breakfast on the broad veranda, from which we could look out at mountains and tropical verdure to delight the eye. A real American can not begrudge the hour and breakfast, so good that this time l did a quarter that the native waiter took to serve it. Grapefruit, oatmeal and cream, soft-boiled eggs, jam, toast, and coffee....
Then this perfect picture was spoiled.
Just as we finished, the hospital door opened, and four men emerged, bearing a coffin. Some one had died in the night. They came past us, carrying the coffin lightly. It meant that for another Puerto Rican the gnawing of slow starvation had ceased.... We got out quickly, hurrying to our next destination.
Funerals in that island are frequent. Often we passed several in a day.
"We must train some of the Puerto Ricans in practical union organization technique," I reported in one of my letters to New York. "It would be impossible for any of our regular people to work here indefinitely."
At the same time I wrote to Brookwood Labor College, explaining the situation and asking for two scholarships. Tucker P. Smith, then dean there, immediately said yes, and I began looking for a likely pair of girls to send. One diminutive girl in the Mayaguez local attracted me; bright and aggressive, Amparo Rivera, spoke both Spanish and English fluently. All agreed she was highly eligible for one of the scholarships.
On recommendation of Dona Lola, head of the Arecibo local, the second scholarship was given to Carmen Curbelo, a tall girl who had done much toward building up the union in that city.
Morris Hillquit's daughter Nina wrote that she was coming down from New York on a Caribbean cruise, and planned to spend three days in Puerto Rico, while her ship went from San Juan to Santo Domingo and back. We made the most of those days, taking her to see not only scenic beauties and industrial enterprises that shown to tourists, but also the squalor and sorrow that tourists never saw. We took her into some of the workers' hovels÷the "homes" described in the travel booklets as "picturesque thatched houses." She was appalled, as I had been.
In San Juan we inspected a large cigar and cigarette factory, of special significance since it illustrated vast displacement of labor by machinery. Puerto Rico had been one of the world's great centers of cigar manufacturing when cigars were made by hand. Most of the leaders in the Free Federation of Labor were former cigarmakers. Now nearly all cigars produced on the island were made by machinery. Each girl worker in the San Juan factory attended several machines, and produced as many cigars per day as 20 men formerly turned out. About a dozen men, however, were still employed in the plant, making extra large cigars, which could not be produced by the standard machines.
We took our visitor also to the big tobacco curing sheds in Bayamon. The processing of the leaves, in high stacks in hot rooms, was shown and explained. But we were much more interested in the women÷perhaps 100 of them÷who sat in an adjacent room, endlessly sorting those leaves. They had virtually the same yellowish brown color as the tobacco, and always carried with them its odor. As our guide explained, they never had enough time to clean their bodies adequately.
Miss Hillquit was guest of honor at a meeting held by the Free Federation of Labor. In introducing her, I dwelt upon the invaluable work her father, pioneer labor lawyer, had done for the ILGWU through many years. The ovation she received moved her to tears.
There is no rainy season in Puerto Rico, one is assured in official literature; rainfall is equally distributed throughout the year. But late that month for three days it poured or drizzled almost continuously. I spent much of the time in my room preparing the speech that I was to deliver before the Free Federation of Labor Congress My thoughts unfolded slowly, however; I was depressed. That un ceas ng tropical rain got on my nerves. I felt like a prisoner within the four walls of my room.
On the fourth day the sun appeared again, and I snapped out of my dark mood.
Swimming in the Condado pool restored me, and in the evening I attended a recital, at which a young violinist, Pepito Figueroa, played Spanish and Gypsy music that transported me to other worlds.
Santiago Iglesias presided at the Labor Congress, which was held at Mayaguez, in the Teatro Yaguez. Governor Blanton Winship, several Labor Senators, and other notables were present. Sitting on the platform with these distinguished guests, I was more impressed by the gathering before me.
Looking at those eager faces÷almost a thousand, scrubbed clean and bright for the occasion÷one could perceive instantly that this was a genuine Congress of Labor. It presented a poignant contrast to other gates at labor conventions I had attended. In the States, male dele- conclaves were usually well dressed. with collars, ties, and coats÷except in hot weather÷and most of them certainly were well fed. But here the bulk of the men delegates wore tattered clothes, usually only shirt and pants. They were lean and hungry looking, and many had walked long distances to be present. I had come with 20 delegates representing the newly formed Needle Trades Union.
There was no mistaking how much it meant to these delegates to be attending the Congress, nor their fervor for unionism. They showed it in their songs, and in applause÷when speeches touched the realities of working-class problems and their own lives.
Governor Winship spoke just ahead of me. His address was remarkable in that it was one of the most banal I ever heard from the lips of a government official. Blandly he spoke of Puerto Rico's climate, sunshine, scenic grandeur, flowers, and the like. Everything on the island was beautiful and serene. When he finished I wondered for a moment whether he really had uttered those superficialities÷or had I been dreaming? It was hard to believe that a man in the Governor's position, knowing the facts about the economic plight of the Puerto Rican people, could dish out such nonsense about the scenery to listeners who needed jobs and food.
It was my task, as the next on the program, to bring the audience back to earth. Speaking about 30 minutes, I told of the struggle that had gone into the upbuilding of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and its relation to the industrial world. I dealt with the New Deal, Puerto Rico's pressing economic problems, and the critical global situation, "with the world on the verge of another war, that will be the bloodiest that mankind has ever known."
When I finished, those who understood English applauded politely. Then Teresa Anglero read a Spanish translation of what I had said, and applause echoed through the auditorium. A delegate offered a motion to have my address printed as a separate pamphlet, in addition to being incorporated in the convention proceedings. The motion was made unanimous. Now l was touched to the point of tears.
Subsequently I learned from the Free Federation officials that the last outside speaker from the American Federation of Labor at a convention had been Samuel Gompers, in 1914. They showed me a copy of his address. It was a masterly exposition of conditions÷ clear-cut, militant. With only a change of date, what Gompers said in 1914 would have applied equally to the situation in 1934. I was sorry I had not seen that speech before÷I would have asked leave to read it to the convention. It was as fundamental, I thought, as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Labor Senators among the speakers were poorly garbed, like the rest of the delegates. But this did not make them self-conscious. They dealt with the things they knew, their speeches going straight to the point.
Now we of the ILGWU completed preparations for the second annual convention of the island's needle trades workers. This would be held in San Juan, where we had consolidated the five scattered locals and laid a solid foundation for our now rapidly expanding Puerto Rican organization. That convention, at which Teresa Anglero presided like a veteran president of a major union, enabled us to strengthen our lines still further.
Soon afterwards Charles Zimmerman, secretary-manager of Local 22 of New York, and one of my fellow vise-presidents in the ILGWU, came down by plane to spend his vacation in Puerto Rico. He was not averse to traveling with me, watching, and making occasional speeches at union meetings. These gatherings in various cities throughout the island now took on the form of farewells to me, for I had booked passage to return to New York late in the month. The climax to all this came on September 27, with a farewell dinner in San Juan for Amparo Rivera and Carmen Curbelo, (the girls whom I was taking back to Brookwood Labor College), Zimmerman, and myself. A mass meeting afterwards in the big auditorium of Baldoriatz public school was crowded, the girls with whom I had worked occupying front seats. Labor Commissioner Martinez presided.
Teresa Anglero broke down while reading an address. Others, too, spoke with feeling of what the union meant to them. And many of those women and girls had brought gifts for me, pieces of needle-craft they had made. These were piled on the speakers' table. They included a beautiful set of satin lingerie done in intricate needle-work with exquisite lace; a linen dress of drawn work, the art of Ampero Rivera; handkerchiefs of a type I have never seen in New York; hand-bags, lingerie bags, and various woven articles fashioned with thoughtful care.
To me those gifts typified something priceless, a giving from the depths of these simple people's hearts. By the same token I gave to various girls things which would have special meaning for them ÷Chinese and Mexican jewelry, a camera, my own lunch box (which Teresa had particularly wanted), thermos bottles, and other possessions both utilitarian and decorative.
When the Borinquen sailed next day there were more gifts and flowers. And now, instead of the two dozen persons who had formed the committee of welcome when I arrived, hundreds of union workers were on the pier to bid us buen viaje.
On the return voyage, fellow passengers eyed our group curiously, doubtless wondering about the make-up of this odd party÷the two dark Puerto Rican girls, Zimmerman, tall, light complected, and blue eyed, and myself, deeply tanned and Spanish looking, mothering those girls.
Back in New York, I took Amparo and Carmen on to Brookwood. For the next nine months they were subjected to an intensive training which would stand them in good stead when carrying on unionization work at home.
Rose Schneiderman asked me to come to Washington, to confer with Ernest Gruening, new Federal Administrator of Insular Affairs. Mr. Gruening listened keenly as I told of my observations among the islanders. He asked what suggestions I had to offer. I urged among other things steps to cut down the birth rate and to bring groups of likely young men and women from Puerto Rico to the mainland to be trained in social service, so that they could work effectively among their own people.
Since then economic conditions in Puerto Rico have grown even worse. After the Wage and Hour Law became effective in 1938, various needle trades employers left the island, transferring their operations to China and the Philippines. And later other manufacturers moved out and industrial production largely ceased when war exigencies stopped practically all commercial shipping from the Caribbean area.
With the beginning of the war Puerto Rico became of vital importance to the United States as a naval base. But this did not alter the tragic state of the great majority of its 2,000,000 inhabitants. Because of the widespread shutdown of industry, countless thousands of native workers face virtual starvation. The millions in relief money that have been poured in have sufficed only as a palliative.
Recommendations made by Governor Rexford Tugwell to President Roosevelt, if put into practice, should go a long way toward rehabilitating the island, both economically and socially. Among other things Mr. Tugwell urges election by the Puerto Rican people of their own Governors so that they will no longer have a mere colonial status, but will have the full responsibility of carrying on for themselves.
Puerto Rico clearly has great pressing need of new industries, new crops of staple foodstuffs for home consumption instead of export, higher minimum wages, abolition of child labor, health clinics, more schools for both children and adults, and training centers for both industrial and agricultural workers. And the whole population would benefit if there was less political bickering.
That land of splendor and squalor stands as a glaring example of the evils of imperialism and as evidence of the clean-up job which ought to be done on our own doorstep before we begin taking care of the whole world.
* IT] 1937 the Puerto Rican Legislature enacted a law providing for dissemination of birth control information through clinics I Though that law has stood a test ITT test courts, and though continues strong at least 28 communities are active, religious opposition to them limitation continues strong. So the Puerto Ricans multiply even though most of them never have enough to eat.
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